Monday, December 1, 2008

Finding that Muslim Friend in You

Dear Najeeb,

How are you? And where are you? Last year when I went to my village, I asked our friends about you. One of them told me you were in Dubai for a long time and once you got a chance to travel to England with your boss, you gave him a slip. Now they say you are well settled in London, doing a good job and earning a lot. Good. You were always a smart ass. I still remember the kind of pleasure you used to get by slapping at my bare thighs with your hard palms. You see, now I have shed all those fat. I am no longer your ‘elephant’. It is funny to remember all those things we did during our school days. We have grown old my dear friend, with graying moustache and hair. What about you?

After these many years, I wonder why I write you this letter. Yes, I know why I do this. These days, everyone is afraid of Muslims. You know the reason also. They say Muslims are terrorists. Now, Mumbai is attacked by the Lashkar-e-Tyebba terrorists. Even if Mumbai is attacked by the terrorists, as usual we find an emblematic enemy in Muslims. They say, Muslims breed like anything and one day they are going to destroy all other people. I am fed up of this kind of thinking. I don’t want to argue with people because people are always a majority and your voice will sink in their arguments. I am not a politician because I have other things to do in my life. I am not a policy maker because individuals like me are always out of the policy making bodies. But I think, I have some partial solution for this lopsided thinking of the people.

The solution is simple. Just search for your Muslim friend. Or just find out that Muslim friend who resides in you.

In our childhood days, you must be remembering, we grew up without knowing whether you were a Muslim, a Christian or a Hindu. Even if we went home during the lunch breaks, we all cherished the free meal served from the school kitchen. Do you remember the seal on those sacks of wheat and oil tins? They had the American flag etched on them. We never thought we were having subsidized American food. Then during intervals we ran to the ‘kaakka’s’ (the older Muslim brother) shop where he sold sweets and pickles. For five paise we used to get one piece of pickle and a lot of water free. Don’t you still remember the sweetness of water when you drink it after chewing the pickled berries?

I never thought you were a Muslim. But I envied you for the first time and I too wanted to become a Muslim, do you know when? Don’t laugh at me. I became jealous of you when you had your sunnat (circumcision). You got two weeks leave from school. When I came to see you, you were lying on a mattress spread on the floor with a white cotton cloth hung like a tent from your groins. I could see you giving me a smile with a tinge of pain in it. Your umma (mother) and other women of the household were sitting around you, singing songs and feeding you with the best of sweets. They made me to sit near them and gave me a lot of sweets.

Back in school, you showed me your stuff, now without the foreskin. It looked pale red. Do you remember, how gleefully we did the pissing game after that. Mine with the adjustable end and yours without that. We drew our names on the clay wall behind the school building with our urine jet and we waited to see the clay sucking in our urine and leaving a faint mark of our names there. Oh….now again I was jealous of you, during those Thursday evenings, when you guys had the Arab lessons. You never allowed me to touch your Arab text book. It was too sacred for you. You showed off how you read it from right to left. What an achievement. I wished to study Arab then and there. But it’s okay. You compensated for it by inviting me and other friends during the Ramadan days when used to do fasting. In the evening, along with you, we too had the wonderful dinner that your Umma cooked for all of us.

I remember, I used to get up by the ‘Allahu Akbar’ calling from the mosque which was a few paces behind my house. At the same time I used to listen to this ‘Venkateswara Suprabhatam’ sung by the legendary M.S.Subbalakshmi, coming out of a loud speaker of the nearest temple. My days were marked by this jugalbandi of Allahu Akbar and Venkateswara Suprabhatam. In the evening, my grandmother waited for the Mullah to give the namaz call so that she could light the lamps in the small temple at our courtyard. I had never seen her going and looking at the clock. She religiously lit the lamps before all those Hindu gods when the Mullah prayed to Allah.

On Fridays, my friend, those were all good Fridays, we got two hours of lunch break. From 12 to 2. You went to the mosque to finish an early prayer and came back to the school ground. Actually, we never noticed that the long interval was for facilitating namaz. For us it was a value added time to chase butterflies in the school ground, ogle at the elderly girls standing at first floor of the building and pester the old women who sold pickled items along the boundary wall of the school. I still don’t understand, why as village kids we had this perennial liking for pickled things? These pickled items used to level all gender imbalances for both the boys and girls liked these alike. Don’t you remember the loud speaker of the school, which only played out Vandemataram, Janaganaman and the marching tune, during these Friday lunch break played out one popular song? The school had one LP record, which had only one song. And all those five years we spent there, every Friday we listened this one song. Man…those were days of utter happiness.

Did you ever raise objection in singing Vandemataram or Janaganamana? I am sure, you never, because we never thought that those were meant for indoctrinating us with Hindutva. For us they were daily dose of nationalism, which we consumed happily. Often, if I am not wrong, we looked at those girls standing in other lines and sang very loudly so that their untrained eyes would waver and meet our gaze at some point. They would then lower their eyes. What a sight it was man. Then who said, you were a Muslim. Who said our friends Shaji, Salim, Sabu (there were two Sabus), Naushad, Rabi, Reji, Rahmatullah, Shamnad and all were Muslims? Had we ever looked at each other as Muslims and Hindus? Have we ever fought on religious lines? The maximum insult that came out of our innocence was this: You are a murian (your tip is chopped). But you gave me the befitting answer: Your dad is bald. We never thought of our religions when we exchanged these funny insults because we courted the same girls, we flirted with the same teachers, we spent endless hours for the same set of girls coming from their tuition homes.

We celebrated all the festivals together. We could go to any home and could ask for food. If there is a marriage in the neighborhood, we all worked there as volunteers. The junction next to my house was called Pakistan Junction because the majority of the Muslim community lived that side of the village. But it was at this junction I learned the basics of Islam. During the Ramadan days, the traveling story tellers and theatre people used to come and perform there. In childhood, I could recite the story of Mohammad Nabi Sellallahu Alaiva Sellam in verse. We all sang these songs together.

When I remember the marriages in our village, I blush man. Do you remember Shainuba? Yes, my girl friend during the school final. As you know, she got married when I was in my degree first year. Girls get married earlier. She was not in love with me anymore but I think I was. She came to invite me and my family for her marriage. As you know, Muslim marriages have this heavenly biriyani cooked for the feast. I crossed the fence and went to her home to attend her marriage. Marriage was over and the guests were called to feast. As I was shy I could not get into the crowd. I went back crestfallen. I lost a girl and the biriyani too. Later in the evening I was sleeping out of sadness (now I think I was sad for that Biriyani part), my mother called me out, ‘Get up, biriyani came.’ There is a custom in our village, if any feast is there, that should be shared with the neighbours. Shainuba’s umma had brought our share. The moment I heard the word ‘biriyani’ I jumped up from the bed. My mother looked at me with some expression in her eyes, which put me into utter shame.

When my mother was admitted to a hospital for removing her uterus, I met a nurse called Meharunnisa. Obviously she was a Muslim. But I never thought of her as a Muslim. I fell in love with her instantly. And I wrote a lyrical poem dedicated to her: “Meharunnisa, meharunnisa, for how long should I wait.” Such a pedestrian lyrics. But I tuned it and sung it for her. With a laughter that resounded spilling of pearls on a marble floor, she received the poem, read it aloud for my mother who was under her care. I don’t know where Meharunnisa is now.

What happened to all of us Najeeb? Last time, I went to Pakistan Junction to buy a packet of cigarette, I found a group of boys staring at me. They were having clear Muslim identities. I smiled at them. Some elders knew me. They talked to me. I saw a group of your girls walking down the road with scarves and purdahs covering them. I don’t know when all these changes started taking place. Did you notice these things whenever you came back to home last? Didn’t you get disturbed by the sight?

It is time for all of us to seek each other. Wherever we are we should reach out to each other and should get back to our innocence. So that next time, if I you confront me with a gun in your hand, I would laugh and say, ‘You are a murian’. If I confront you with a trident, you would laugh and say, ‘Your dad is bald’.

Then both of us will go to your Umma’s kitchen and eat those sweet meats she made for us.

If I look at your biwi with my funny eyes, don’t slap my thighs with your hard palms. I have shed all those fat, man.


Dilip Narayanan said...

Among politicians the esteem of religion is profitable; the principles of it are troublesome.

Arunkumar H G said...

i enjoyed this,beautiful memories shaped beautifully.this beauty can beat any beast.
loved it, looking forward for more 'n more.

nitesh said...

Beautiful post, Johnny sir and I do enjoy your ‘Video Wednesdays’ that you curate every month in Delhi and reading the blog.

It’s strange how people see Muslims today- with suspicion, and the paranoia is certainly aggravating each day. I grew up studying up in a boarding school, and spend years without questioning ones religion, caste or culture. But when I shifted to Delhi, suddenly my Manipur friends became chinkis, I became a Bihari, and some of my Muslim friends found it hard to find accommodation.

Unknown said...

how similar are our differnces whether we realise it or not.....
a piece apt for our times and for our minds.

Unknown said...

johny this is a wonderful timeless tale. Much patriotic much humanistic, true to the land, for only love is the true nature & strength of this land. An appropriate response.

bipin balachandran said...

i was visualizing the scenes while could be a short film.beautiful..

kamaneesh said...

Blessed are they who're born and brought up at vakkom.For me, I never thought of being backward in any respect.It came as an utter surprise to me (and a paradigm shift to my views) to learn about it only when I went to fill my pre digree application forms.I am proud that my village and my people around kept me in high self esteem.

shabbir said...

i came across this peice of your writing just by accident and i pray such accidents keep happenong everytime.
i just want to say "Thank You".
people like you give many like me confidence that somewhere in our hearts each of us has that innocent kid who does not differentiate.

layered said...

lovely piece.